I guess I never updated the blog on how exactly I planned to change my DMing to achieve D&D 2.0. Or, well, you know D&D 4.2.0…or something like that.
Anyway, I’ve always loved dicking around in D&D. Back in high school when I rocked out with advanced second edition, I got my hands on a book called The Complete Book of Humanoids and I spent the next handful of campaigns playing half-crazy fanciful beasts who sort of went out of their way to be more entertaining to the party than useful. There was the centaur warrior with an English accent obsessed with military formalism, the wemic (sort of like a centaur, but with lion parts instead of horse parts) witch doctor with multiple personality disorder, and the aarakocra (large humanoid bird) who just went around yelling at people in a shrill voice.
I dunno, it seemed fun at the time.
The point is that I love the aspect of D&D where you’re able to just hang out with your friends and have fun, much like any game experience should be. And, I dunno, maybe that was the fun part of D&D to me back then because combat was so inherently boring in AD&D2. You got into combat with something and everything just sort of ground to a halt and became a unengaging roll-fest.
Eventually my tastes evolved, however, and a good time with friends became playing some complicated board game (which, incidentally, is not considered a good time by that many other people). So when 4th edition came around, I was eager to try it out because combat seemed like it could actually be fun. It seemed like a board game, and maybe I could trick people into playing this board game with me by telling them it was D&D. I mean, it wasn’t really malicious or anything, and I think everybody had a good time (except maybe my hot wife, who only lasted a few sessions), but I wasn’t really giving them a full D&D experience. I was just exploring the intricacies of 4th edition combat and enjoying myself. I learned how to make compelling encounters, gaining a lot of experience about what worked and what didn’t.
But while creating complex encounters was very much an aspect of creative expression I enjoyed, I was sort of suppressing other creative needs I have for storytelling. I mean, I love being creative, so why not allow myself to create complex stories and interactive environments in addition to complex monster encounters and give my players a more complete and fulfilling D&D experience?
Well, okay,the obvious answer is time commitment. Once you get the hang of it, you can create a session’s worth of monster encounters in an hour or two. Less, actually, if you just want to pull some shit out of the Monster Manual. It takes significantly more effort to create a really great out-of-combat experience for the players.
I mean, look at it this way: in combat, players always want to do one thing – subdue the monsters. You set up pins in front of them, and they knock them down. When your doing something other than combat, like, say, dropping your players into a city and asking them to solve a string of mysterious disappearances, you have only a vague sense of what they will want to do. They are in the middle of a city, and they can do anything (maybe not anything, but the closer you can get to allowing them to feel like they can do anything, the more immersing the experience will be). This means that instead of creating a handful of monsters, you have to create an entire city, which, admittedly, is a little bit more time intensive. But if you can pull it off, which a lot of the time can mean a lot of off-the-cuff improvisation of characters and location descriptions, then the results can be well worth it.
So that’s what I tried to do in my second campaign – attempt to harness the full force of my creativity and experience to produce a story that has engaging combat and non-combat elements.
All right, so where to begin? The inspiration for the start of the campaign actually came from a completely different game I started getting into about a month ago – Fiasco. Fiasco is pretty cool. It is essentially a game where people sit down and talk to each other, acting out scenes that generally lead their characters from bad situations to worse, usually resulting in their death or humiliation at the end. It’s pretty simple, but surprisingly well-developed, such that the few rules it does have function really well in ensuring a great game experience where people get to be highly creative and act out all sorts of interesting and intense scenarios.
So, anyway, there’s a fantasy-specific playset for Fiasco where the elements you establish at the beginning of the game are all lifted from the sort of pulpy swords and sorcery adventures one would come up with playing D&D after school in one’s halcyon days of youth. And somewhere in my Internet perusal it was actually recommended as a starter for a D&D campaign, which made a whole lot of sense to me.
Here is why:
First of all, D&D is very much a 2-way street. For all the effort a DM puts into creating a good campaign, the players also need to be receptive about what the DM is trying to get done. They have to get involved in the story to fully experience it and enjoy it. Just look to my last post for what happens when you have a DM willing to put in the effort and a bunch of players who don’t. (Did I mention in my last post that the DM seemed pretty competent in his DMing skills? Because he was. It looked like he was trying really hard, but couldn’t stay afloat above this tsunami of a “let’s-just-dick-around” attitude.) This can sometimes be pretty heartbreaking for someone like me, who actually gets very emotionally attached to the stories I create. I then try to share them with others and the stories are met with nothing but indifference, the campaign peters off and I don’t even get to finish the stories.
So, anyway, there are, in my opinion, three main obstacles that keep players from engaging in campaigns. The first is a lackluster job from the DM in making the campaign itself compelling. And I’m not saying I’m above this at all. In fact, this could possibly be the main problem with why some of my campaigns have failed in the past. When I sit down and start thinking about where I want to take a story, I tend to get super-complex pretty quickly, and before I know it, I’m throwing in time travel and parallel dimensions. Which may not necessarily be a bad thing, but it could be because it tends to make the plot convoluted and unintelligible, basically amounting to a lot of mysteries that keep piling up with no pay-off. The thought of “what the crap is going on?” can quickly make the players stop caring altogether. So I’m trying to reign myself in this new campaign, telling more self-contained stories within a larger, more straight-forward over arching plot – something that is always in the background and only comes to the foreground when it needs to.
I’m thinking more along the lines of The X Files instead of Lost.
Other than that, players can simply feel uncomfortable engaging in a story, especially if they’re not used to D&D. Should they talk in character? How seriously should they take all of this when it’s only a silly game that doesn’t mean anything in the real world?
And the other obstacle is that players may not be invested in the story. After all, it’s my story, not their story. I strong-armed them into playing D&D with me, and now I’m talking to them in weird voices about a giant psychic bug terrorizing the townsfolk.
The point is that I think Fiasco works really well at overcoming these second two obstacles. The idea is that at the start of the campaign, there is zero preparation: no character creation, no DM designing encounters or NPCs. Everyone just sits down and plays a game of Fiasco, not even thinking about the D&D campaign to come. Only at the end of the game, once the players have fully fleshed out a group of characters, some of which who may have died through the course of the story, do the players and the DM sit down together and think, “Okay, how can we make a campaign out of this?” They start thinking about which characters from the Fiasco game could be playable in the campaign, which characters might be good villains or quest-giving NPCs. Obviously there won’t be a 1-to-1 transfer of Fiasco characters to playable D&D characters, so you might have to flesh out the world a bit more to include players whose characters may have died or been particularly evil. And once the characters have been established, then the DM does his thing to make a story to continue the tale kicked off with Fiasco.
What this does is make the players at least somewhat invest in the story. Now it is their story, and the DM is just taking it and running with it, allowing their continued input along the way (in a more controlled, limited manner, but still). And Fiasco also forces people to talk in character, to really go balls-to-the-walls in being the person that their playing and getting into their skin. Yeah, that character may end up dead, but at least you’ve communicated to them through the game that it’s okay to engage. We’re all nerds here together, man, so really get into the mind of your character and act it out like you think he would.
So that’s what my group did last week for the first game. It didn’t go perfectly, but it was still a fun time. There was a point at the end where we realized only 2 of the 5 characters could actually be carried over to the campaign and the only villians that emerged were drawn and quartered at the end. Everybody was sort of stuck on what character they could add to the story and how these additional characters could get hooked into an adventure with the current characters. I sort of had to pick up the slack and add more of my own initial ownership to the story than I wanted to make everything fit and get a better transition into an actual D&D game.
Essentially the Fiasco story revolved around two werewolf twins trying to rob and kill a powerful sorcerer in his tower, aided by the sorcerer’s apprentice and a local brothel owner. But both werewolves died at the end and the sorcerer we sort of decided was too powerful to be a playable character. So the others decided on classes and races and then I went home and wrote them all a small hook that more-or-less got the old characters and the new characters to the same place with the same goal. I had to fast forward a bit to 4 or 5 years after the Fiasco game, where people in town had started disappearing (possibly related to the fact that the werewolves had bit some people before getting torn apart by a mob) and everyone had at least some investment in finding those who had disappeared. It worked well enough, I think, and I would definitely do it again. There’s a huge amount of randomness to Fiasco games, so I think it could have ended up working out a lot better than it did, but it probably could have been worse, too.
I wanted to get to the first skill encounter and combat encounter we went through yesterday during the first official D&D session of the new campaign, but I have really rambled here for quite a while, so that will have to wait. I’ve got a lot of strong opinions about how horribly designed out-of-combat stuff is in 4th edition, so I’m sure that will emerge in the upcoming post, as well.